12 English Phrases with Unexpected Origins

by Pavas B5 years ago
Picture 12 English Phrases with Unexpected Origins

How often do we come across an expression and are left perplexed wondering from where it originated. The English language is strange, and phrases can sometimes be tricky enough to understand let alone be aware of the stories behind them. Did you know that the expression “no can do” and “long time, no see” are the literal translations of similar, Cantonese phrases? Or that “butter someone up” comes from a religious tradition in India where people used to lob balls of butter onto the statues of gods in hope of good fortune? Well, if that doesn’t surprise you enough, we have compiled a list of 12 examples of such unexpected origins of English phrases that will blow your mind.

1 The phrase, “taste of your own medicine” comes from a famous Aesop’s fable called “The Cobbler Turned Doctor.”

Image credits: Pixabay

The meaning of the phrase is that someone should have the same unpleasant experience that they’ve given to others.

It originates from a famous Aesop’s fable in which a cobbler decides to become a doctor and starts selling a potion which could “cure everything.” The news of this cure is spread quickly by word of mouth, and he gains the popularity he never had as a cobbler. However, one day the cobbler gets sick and the king decides to test his magic potion. He asks for a cup and fills it with water under the pretense of it being poison and mixes it with the cobbler’s antidote. The king then asks the cobbler to drink it. Fearing his death, the cobbler confesses that he was not a doctor and the potion was not genuine. (1, 2)

2 “Pardon my French” was actually a way of hiding profanity by using swear words from the French language.

(Image 1) King William I The Conqueror. (Image 2) Poster for the 1921 movie Pardon My French, the character of the left uses the French profanity “Diable !”. Image credits: National Portrait Gallery, Goldwyn Pictures/Wikipedia

The phrase “pardon my French” is used to apologize for swearing. The roots of the phrase go back to 19th century England.

When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he brought with him the beautiful French language. However, French was not spoken by the common people and only used by the aristocrats and the nobles. The use of the French language continued as a symbol of class and pompous expression.

During the 19th century, English speakers would use unflattering French swear words in their conversations so that the others could not understand. Yet somehow, they would apologize for it by using the phrase “Pardon my French.” It was strange that one would apologize not for the use of profanity but for using the French language. There’s a long list of expressions and phrases in both languages that stem from the sour relationship between the two countries. (source)


3 “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” comes from a practice by the saloons offering a free lunch to the customers who bought at least one drink.

Image credits: Infobae

The meaning of the phrase is quite simple: one does not simply get anything for free. There is always a hidden cost to the person even if things might appear to be free.

The origin dates back to the “free lunch” tradition by the saloons in the United States. Although the salons did offer a “free lunch,” but it only consisted of food that was high in salt. This was done so that the people would eventually end up buying more beer to quench their thirst caused by the excessive salt. However scummy that may sound, the strategy worked brilliantly, and so the phrase was born. (source)

4 The origins of the phrase “You can run, but you can’t hide” is credited to the American boxer named Joe Louis.

Joe Louis
Image credits: Missouri State Archives/Flickr

The phrase is defined as the fact that you can run away from your problems and fears, but you will eventually have to face them. It is hard to wrap your head around the fact that the phrase stems from a particular boxing match.

In 1941, Billy Conn was preparing for a fight against Joe Louis. Despite being a light heavyweight boxer, Conn did not want to gain any weight for the fight saying that he would rely on a “hit and run” strategy to which Joe Louis famously replied by saying “He can run, but he can’t hide.” (source)

5 To “give a cold shoulder” was a polite way of saying “you may leave now.”

Image credits: Pixabay

To “give a cold shoulder” means to intentionally avoid someone or treat them in a rude or unfriendly manner.

It is believed that in old England if a guest had overstayed their welcome, they were served cold, shoulder meat which was an indication that they should leave. Instead of having a dialogue, this passive approach seems to have worked back in the day. (source)


6 “Balls to the wall” was coined by aircraft pilots back in the ’60s.

Image credits: Alex Pereslavtsev/Airliners

The phrase is defined as pushing to the limits or doing something with maximum effort.

The term was introduced by pilots in the 1960s. During a flight when a pilot wanted to increase the speed of the aircraft, he would hold the power lever which had a ball on the top and push it forward to the front panel or wall of the cockpit. (source)

7 The phrase “bite the bullet” is believed to have originated by doctors during wars.

Image credits: Pixabay

The definition of the phrase is to face an unpleasant reality.

It is said to have originated from the practice of biting a bullet to endure the pain of surgery. During a war, if a soldier was wounded and required immediate medical assistance, in the absence of anesthesia he was asked to bite on a bullet to help him cope with the pain of the surgical operation. (source)

8 The origin of “minding your Ps and Qs” dates back to the English pubs in the 17th century.

Image credits: David Teniers the Younger/National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

“Minding your Ps and Qs” refers to minding your manners or to be on your best behavior. The story behind the origins is rather interesting.

In England during the 17th century, the bartenders would keep a watch on the consumption of alcohol by their customers by keeping an eye on the pints and quarts they consumed. As the bartender would often remind the customers by using the phrase “mind your Ps and Qs.” (source)


9 “Born with a silver spoon” comes from a tradition followed by the wealthy nobles back in the day.

Silver spoon
Image credits: Dion Hinchcliffe/Flickr

To be “born with a silver spoon” means to be born in a rich and wealthy family.

In medieval times, spoons were usually made out of wood, and only the wealthy would eat with silver spoons. It was a tradition in many countries that wealthy godparents would often gift a newborn child a silver spoon during the christening ceremonies. Silver is an expensive metal and was only used by the aristocrats and the wealthy. (source)

10 “Bury the hatchet” was a way of making peace by literally burying the hatchet.

Image credits: Valerie Everett/Flickr

The term “bury the hatchet” means to end the conflict and make peace.

The story of its origin comes from North America. During the 1600s, The Puritans (a group of English Reformed Protestants) and the Native Americans wanted to end the conflict between them. So, they decided to have talks, and once the peace agreement was made, the chiefs of the tribes buried all their hatchets, clubs, and knives in the ground to make them inaccessible. This was seen as a symbolic gesture towards peace. (source)

11 The expression “in the limelight” stems from the theater spotlights created using calcium oxide.

Image credits: Theresa knott /Wikimedia, Pixabay

While we all are aware of the meaning of the phrase “in the limelight,” very little is known about its origin. The phrase refers to something being a center of attention.

The limelight effect was discovered by Goldsworthy Gurney in the 1820s. He noticed that when an oxy-hydrogen flame was directed towards a cylinder of calcium oxide (quicklime), there was a bright illumination.  In 1825, Thomas Drummond, a Scottish engineer, observed the limelight effect for the first time. He then proceeded to build a light using the same effect which he thought would be very useful in surveying. The light was known as “Drummond’s light.” His invention was later used in public theaters and music halls to highlight the performers. (source)


12 “Chance your arm” is derived from an incident at the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Ireland.

The expression “chance your arm” means to take a risk despite knowing the consequences.

The story behind this expression dates back to 1492 in Ireland. Two families, the Butlers and the Fitzgerald’s, had an ongoing argument regarding the position of the Lord Deputy. The tensions between the families kept boiling over, and soon the disagreement turned into a violent clash between the two sides. Seeing the situation was getting out of control, the Butlers decided to take refuge in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Fitzgerald’s followed them and asked them to come out of the cathedral. Fearing for their lives, the Butlers refused and decided to stay in.

It was then that the head of the Fitzgerald family ordered a hole to be cut in the door. He then put his arm inside through the hole and offered his hand in peace to the Butlers. Seeing the risk he was willing to take, the Butlers shook his hand and the families eventually made peace. This is how the term “chance your arm” was born. (source)

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